Soon after we returned from Samoa in October 2009, I notified the educational institution where I was teaching Spanish that I would no longer be able to teach. At the time I only had one Advanced Spanish Conversation class, people whose company I truly enjoyed for two hours a week and whose enthusiasm for the language spurred the teacher in me more than anything else.
Most of them had been my students for a few years, but I thought I’d be doing them a great disservice if I tried to engage normally with the class, only to break down in front of them, say, twenty minutes into the lesson. I was of course suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but was not totally aware of its symptoms and consequences.
When I migrated to Australia in 1996 I had to reinvent myself professionally. I had been a teacher of English in Spain for over ten years. I applied for a couple of jobs as an ESL teacher in Sydney, but was told (over the phone) that I “had an accent” (and who doesn’t?). I think that says a hell of a lot about Australia and the attitude we – please note the plural – have towards migrant workers. But that’s another story.
So I began teaching Spanish, one of my two mother tongues. My first job was two hours in Hunters Hill on Wednesday evenings, about an hour away from our flat in Coogee. Eventually more hours began filling my evenings elsewhere.
Since then I held many positions teaching Spanish, at many different places in Sydney and Canberra. Some were more enjoyable than others, but I can certainly affirm that one-to-one tuition is by far the mode where the teacher has to become the most involved, and give the most of their selves. Nothing, however, equals the pleasure and the joy of teaching a (foreign) language to your own children.
Clea had been my best and my favourite learner of Spanish from the day she was born. She loved the tongue twisters and how I would play on words all the time. Because we had been to Spain for a month when she was two, she had been able to pick up the language very quickly while we were there. She was able to read well in both languages, Spanish and English. On the night of September 28th 2009, as we had done almost every day for many years, we all read a book in Spanish, a fairytale book, in the fale where we slept that night, under the stars, so very close to the Pacific Ocean, its peaceful lullaby of wavelets caressing the seashore.
The books were forever lost the next day, of course. They were gone with Clea's life, with so many other lives which were wiped away in an instant, along with so many of our dreams, along with the simple possibility of having a normal life.
Now I do not wish to teach the language to anyone other than Clea’s twin brothers. I feel particularly incapable of engaging in the kind of very close relationship implicit in teaching a language to a stranger. I sense there is too much exposure, and I do not necessarily want to open up.
Experience has shown me that not everybody has the guts to acknowledge you, your loss, your pain and your intolerable suffering. You may have been spending with someone three hours on a daily basis for nine months: you have been trying hard to support them; you have been encouraging them; you have done your best to try and instil some strength and self-confidence into them. Yet a few months later you may suddenly become invisible to them, you may cease to exist in their minds.